That might be dangerous for me, because I'm more likely to splurge on stuff like pistachio coconut lip balm when I'm not stressed out and pressed for time, but in any case, I enjoy browsing the strange brands here (thankfully, the snack food section includes some mainstream favorites, though, like Kettle Chips and Lay's). The wine selection includes a lot of bottles under 10 bucks, and the beer fridge contains way more interesting brews (Racer 5 IPA, Stone Smoked Porter) than the typical neighborhood supermarket.

This is destination shopping, all right — similar to Whole Foods, but a whole lot homier.

Sunflower Farmers Market
(Three Valley locations, sfmarkets.com)
At first glance, Sunflower Farmers Market is strikingly similar to Sprouts, especially because the middle of the store is devoted to huge bins of organic fruits and vegetables — a really nice selection — as well as aisles of granola, nuts, flour, and dried fruits by the pound. The vibe is easygoing, too.

Around the periphery of the store, however, Sunflower reveals its own personality — in some ways, this place is way more of a health-nut hippie hangout, but in other ways, it's got more simple luxuries.

On the health front, these guys haven't skipped a beat. For the vegetarian, there's plenty of vegan cheese and Tofurky deli meat. Near the humongous vitamin section, there's a tiny fridge full of flax oil and hemp seed butter. There are organic options for just about everything, from soda to ice cream. And looking at the cereal aisle, I'd assume the whole store is lacking in big-name brands — besides a couple familiar items like Cheerios, it's mostly brands like "Peace Cereal" (seriously). But lo and behold, I also stumble upon a whole stash of Pepperidge Farm cookies and crackers. Go figure. Still, it might take a jaunt to a regular supermarket if you're set on certain brands. I didn't see any Diet Coke, but hey, they have ginseng cream soda.

For people on the go, there's an interesting variety of ready-to-eat nibbles like cranberry couscous, chicken-apple salad, and single servings of cheesecake and apple pie, plus heat-and-eat stuff such as veggie lasagna and pork chop dinners. Pot stickers, corn dogs, and spinach knishes also stand out.

But home cooks are more likely to have a field day at Sunflower. Besides the produce, there are big cases of tempting meats and seafood, including gourmet burgers, breaded chicken and pork cutlets, several kinds of ready-to-grill kebabs, and a range of fresh sausages, from chicken-apple to beer bratwurst. Asian ingredients loom large as well, including cut-and-bake mochi, organic kim chi, and miso. I'm impressed by the wine selection, which features labels I've spotted only at restaurants, as well as the well-stocked beer corner, where imports and craft brews (Chimay, Rogue) take up more space than the stuff you'd find at Circle K.

Sunflower isn't the place to load up on name-brand products, but for fresh meats, veggies, staples, and plenty of novelties, it's worth a look.

While Sunflower, Sprouts, and Fresh & Easy can't compete with the mainstream grocery stores on size or sheer quantity of goods, they certainly make up for it with health-conscious and unusual items that make shopping almost fun.

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